COMMENTARY: Have Yourself a Lead-Free Little Christmas…

How to Kick Toxins off Santa’s Checklist

Phthalate-containing rubber ducks may not be the best stocking stuffers.©

There is a Grinch out there, trying to steal Christmas, and he lives in the People’s Republic of China. While Dr. Seuss" Grinch stole all the toys, this new Grinch has merely contaminated them. Gloomily, we face the reality that 80 percent of U.S. toys are made in China. And though China isn’t diabolically plotting to rip out the heart of American culture, its unfettered capitalism has turned our marketplace into something akin to the lawless Wild West. From poisoned pet food to pesticide-laden fish and even toxic toothpaste, Chinese imports have been an ongoing medical emergency over the past year. Most troubling are the millions of contaminated toys sold by trusted brands like Fisher Price and Mattell. Coming from Santa’s new workshop in China, these toys were recalled because of toxic levels of lead. Public health officials have spent the last half-century trying to de-lead our society, especially because children are so vulnerable to lead’s effects on the developing brain. It’s unconscionable that these efforts are being undermined by careless toymakers and a shoddy regulatory system.

Early civilization knew about lead hazards, yet this heavy metal’s industrial charms have kept it around through the centuries. It refuses to leave the human landscape no matter how much we try to banish it. Although children today average five-fold less lead than a generation ago, there are still 300,000 children in the U.S. with too much lead in their systems. This is typically because of old paint and old plumbing, sources that can slowly release into a child’s environment. Now we learn that imported toys may be adding to this body burden and harming brain development.

Ironically, we are probably better off this year than in Christmas" past. The alarm has been sounded and all the toy makers are scrambling to test, certify and reassure. Previous years had no fanfare, no recalls, but probably plenty of lead. Hence, this year’s crop of toys may be better scrutinized and safer. However, parents have an extra job, to weed through toys already purchased and played with by junior. I don’t envy the task of taking away a favorite toy, but lead safety warrants being smart about new and old toys to ensure your child will keep all the smarts he is born with.

Its Not Just Lead

The toxic toy issue goes beyond lead, as phthalates are increasingly turning up as a bad guy in the Wild West of consumer products. Phthalates are plasticizers that make PVC plastic soft and fun to squeeze and gum. This issue can’t be blamed on China as phthalates are in the toy by design, not from overseas mischief. Rubber ducky and your average doll are nice mouthable sources of phthalates. Unfortunately, these unlabeled plasticizers are endocrine disruptors, especially capable of interfering with male development. In spite of toy industry claims that phthalate levels are too low to be a concern to anyone but an alarmist, the European Union banned the six worst phthtalates from children’s toys in 2001 and just this fall, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a law that will do the same for California. But for the rest of us there is nothing to stop phthalate-ridden duckies, plastic books and dolls from being a health risk in the home.

Recent recalls of GHB-containing Aqua Dots horrified parents worldwide.

Finally, this season’s toy story isn’t complete without mention of a popular new toy made in China called Aqua Dots. It has chemical-coated beads that become sticky when sprayed with water, allowing a child’s bead design to become permanent. However, the chemical coating has severely sickened children who swallowed the beads. It forms gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) in the body, a brain toxin whose other main use is as a date rape drug. It seems impossibly stupid to put such toxicity in a toy—isn’t it someone’s job to ask "what happens if a child puts our toy in his mouth?" The toy industry, both here and in China, must take seriously their role in protecting children’s health. When they fail to do so, recalls and fines may be too weak; criminal penalties may be more appropriate.

What’s A Santa to Do?

Wooden toys, like these ducks, are a safer alternative for shoppers.©

Where does all this leave the Santa of the household this holiday season? This checklist will help keep the toys in your home safe.

1)Old toys: phase out painted wooden and brightly colored plastic toys unless you are certain that they were made in the U.S. (not just sold by a U.S. company).

2)New toys: choose toys from local U.S. companies which do not have overseas operations. European toys are also usually safe. You can find listings of online companies featuring U.S. made toys (e.g., If it’s from China or you simply can’t tell, ask for manufacturer test results that show that lead and other chemicals are within safety standards.

3)Check on recalls: lists recalls on toys and many other consumer goods.

4)Phthalates: steer clear of rubber ducky and similar soft PVC toys; choose wood or hard plastic, or order these products in phthalate-free versions from companies selling in Europe or California.

5)Third party certification: Look for the Art and Creative Materials Institute seal on crafty type toys like Aqua Dots. The "AP" label means ACMI has evaluated the product as safe for children. A craft toy made with the toxic chemical in Aqua Dots would not be approved by ACMI. Be especially suspicious of toys that involve glues, paints, dyes or clays that don’t carry the "AP" seal.

DR. GARY GINSBERG is a toxicologist on the faculty at Yale University and at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. He is also co-author of What’s Toxic What’s Not (Berkley/Penguin, 2006) and can be reached at